December 24, 2015

Christmas the Musical

            One of my first summer jobs as a young adult was working in a home for ten women with developmental disabilities. I had a co-worker during the day, but I spent five nights a week in the home. On my first few nights, one of the women—Libby—did not want to go to sleep. To get my attention, she would put the movie “Annie” on her TV and DVD player and crank up the volume so loud that I’d have to intervene.

            Libby wasn’t the only “Annie” fan in the house. Something about Annie’s songs and story connected with several of the women, so they watched the movie over and over and over again. Not all of the women in the house were verbal, but they responded to the tunes and rhythms and character of a young girl who finds herself a loving father.

            Our readings tonight are also full of songs, and they tell the story of a child who seems abandoned to some of the rough edges of our world. And yet, this child will find a true heavenly Father for all of us. Like any good musical, our Psalm tonight invites us to “Sing to the Lord a new song,” and a multitude of angels in the gospel break out into a chorus of “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” The angels’ song is just one out of four musical numbers from the gospel of Luke’s nativity story: Zechariah the father of John the Baptist, Mary the Mother of Jesus, and Simeon in the Temple all have solo parts in Luke’s gospel.

            And . . . I know this is king of a stretch . . . but these solo hymns from Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon are all kind of like the famous song from “Annie”—“The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow.” For example, Zechariah sings, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.” The others sing about a God whose justice and peace are about to break into our world and pour light on all people. The Son will come out tomorrow, born from above, bringing light to the world. In fact, that Son is born and shining on us even now.

            But it’s not for these somewhat similar musical themes that I think about the musical “Annie” each Christmas. When I ponder how to respond to the Christmas mystery—the Incarnation, the mystery of the Son’s birth and dawning—I think back to an experience I had with four of the women in the group home where I worked. It just so happened one week that a local children’s theater group was putting on a performance of “Annie” in a high school gymnasium. When I saw the flyer for the performance, I knew that I had to take Libby to see it for sure, although I couldn’t take all ten women in the home. Because of state regulations, my co-worker could be with a maximum of six women in our home, so I would have to take at least four of the ten with me to see “Annie.” I chose the four who seemed to love “Annie” the most, and who had some ability to regulate themselves enough to enjoy this new experience of seeing a live musical.

            I figured they’d enjoy the musical, but I was truly unprepared for the levels of wonder and joy that Libby, Elvida, Cheryl, and Ellen showed that day. I tried to explain what was going to happen in advance, but nothing could have prepared them for seeing the girl Annie in the flesh. Two moments from that afternoon are still with me these fifteen years later.

            The first was when the actress playing Annie sang and danced down the center aisle of the gymnasium. Instead of staying onstage the whole time, she came down with the audience and right beside us. It was similar to when we bring the gospel book down to hear the Word from the midst of our fellowship during worship. Well, when Annie danced right by us, Libby suddenly stretched out her hand to try to touch her! From Libby’s hand position I knew that she so deeply wanted to touch and hold onto this girl who had come off the small screen and was miraculously here, right in the middle of us, right beside us. I guess it’s a good thing that Libby wasn’t sitting right on the aisle itself, because Annie was just out of her reach.

            The second moment was this: When Libby did get her chance to hold on to Annie. After the performance, all of the actors and actresses visited with the audience outside the gymnasium. Libby, Elvida, Cheryl, and Ellen stood with their faces within inches of Annie’s own face. What filled my heart with some of the deepest joy and gratitude I’ve ever felt was that the actress was so incredibly gracious and kind to them. She can’t have been more than ten years old, and I’m not sure what her experience was with people who are physically or developmentally different. But she so kindly let each of the four women with me hug her . . . multiple times. I’ll never forget the sweet face of this girl as Elvida in particular—a full-grown woman—took a good long stare at Annie and then almost smothered her in one last embrace.

*     *     *

            The mystery of the Incarnation—of God made flesh, of God with us—is not an easy one to grasp. But it’s one we can reach out for as it comes closer and closer to us. It’s not a mystery we can hold onto for long, but it’s one we can wonder at and embrace whenever we get the chance.

            The Incarnation. God made flesh. God with us. Reach for this mystery. Embrace it. Let it fill us with joy and wonder. Surely the Christ child will receive our worship graciously, however it’s offered. And whatever our worship lacks, the angels will make up for with song. Amen.